This year, more than any other, there is one challenge in particular that haunts me. Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media, brought it up three years ago and has reinforced the notion every year since. When he joins the class as a guest speaker, he unapologetically considers that today's public relations professionals may be the stewards of tomorrow's truth.
He's touching on, of course, the unintended consequences of social media and social networks. As news continues to decline and people become more reliant on the Internet, they will increasingly lean on public relations professionals for their news.
It is imperative public relations professionals learn the difference between public relations and propaganda.
Long before social media and social networks became a preferred means to disseminate online information, the future of the Internet was already considered a double-edged sword. On one side, it could be the answer to corporate dominance and media concentration by stimulating the free flow of information. On the other, as a medium, it also allowed for an abundance of misinformation to be spread intentionally (by people with agendas) and unintentionally (by sloppy research and source reporting).
There have been dozens of compelling examples in the last decade, ranging from George Bush's IQ hoax (which some people still believe) to Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, once claiming that a U.S. Navy missile had shot down a commercial flight based on a report by an extreme propagandist. Last year, I also tracked the impact of a single biased release.
Collectively, people do not discriminate for content accuracy as much as they do for content affirmation. So for some bright people, including Randal Martin, who wrote Propaganda & The Ethics Of Persuasion, counting on the fifth estate might not be enough.
The gatekeepers of content and information (public relations professionals) may have to develop a dual allegiance. They must consider the best interest of both the organization and the public. And, they must remember that while effective communication may be designed to change behavior, it does so by providing information and not manipulation.
"That is to say, [manipulation] involves some sort of misleading communication, emotional pressure, appeals to the subconscious, and suchlike," Martin suggested. Or when it aims to infringes on the autonomy of any person.
For example, on the micro level, a blogger may request someone to promote or weigh in with an opinion on a particular post, which represents a fair exchange. But when a blogger attempts to leverage association or favors as a means to coerce promotion or a like opinion, it drifts into propaganda. On the macro level, communicating the disadvantages of a lifestyle choice is fair, but skewing statistical information or capitalizing on an emotional incident to set policy or discredit an unrelated opinion is not.
If you set some recent political exchanges under such a review, you may discover the system is riddled with propaganda. Likewise, some social media participants lean toward accepting propaganda tactics as an accepted, even admired, practice.
Perhaps public relations might consider the definition of German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. He suggested that ethical communication might be subject to being meaningful (understandable), truthful (accurate), sincere (pure intent), and appropriate (valuable given the context). The only dilemma that arises, according to Martin, may be those occasions when the public prefers to surrender its autonomy, placing their trust in representatives. (I might offer up, however, the desire for a simpler life with fewer decisions does not warrant infringing on the autonomy of others.)
What this means for public relations professionals, in particular, is accepting the responsibility to verify sources. Liz Scherer, Jeff Esposito, and Doug Haslam all concur that truth and accuracy are fundamental to the profession.
"Public relations — good public relations — is about getting the message out," reminds Haslam. "Yes, it's advocacy. But the good public relations professionals don't lie."
Esposito adds that public relations professionals can learn from history. He says that major media institutions aren't critical provided professionals are willing to do their homework. It's an important distinction because sometimes even the pros themselves are being subjected to internal propaganda.
It's increasingly important for the public to identify propaganda too.
Spotting propaganda isn't necessarily an easy process. It requires substantial effort to track down originating sources, the ability to decipher primary messages and subtext, an assessment of who might stand to gain, the context of the presentation, the techniques used to share the message, and the infusion of bias (e.g., favoring the well-spoken or ill-spoken spokesperson).
One local example that came to my attention is the reinforcement that Spanish is the "most spoken language in the world." It's not. Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers. Both Mandarin Chinese and English also lead as a first, second, and foreign languages (combined). English is the most learned language in the world, followed by French. Hindu is also widely spoken as are others.
Yet, two area teachers and one television program recently made the claim for Spanish, encouraging children to learn Spanish as a second language without attribution. Interestingly, Virginia Tech recommends French as a more global second language (for English speakers).
I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade someone from learning Spanish. It's especially useful in the southwestern United States and South America. But it does strike me as strange that teachers would spread misinformation, knowingly or not. One even required it as a test answer.
Related Posts About Propaganda.
• PR, not Propaganda.
• PR Firm Behind Propaganda Videos Wins Stimulus Contract.
• Did the Father of Propaganda Convince America that Fluoride Is Safe?